The museum at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate is now paying tribute to a runaway slave once owned by America’s first president.
The exhibition, “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon,” features Ona Judge and the tribulations that caused her to flee for her life in 1796 after toiling in slavery under Washington and his wife, Martha. She was never captured, a fact that brought the Washingtons great embarrassment.
“We have the famous fugitives, like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass,” said Erica Armstrong Dunbar, a professor of black studies and history at the University of Delaware, to The New York Times. “But decades before them, Ona Judge did this. I want people to know her story.”
The tale of her escape begins when she escaped in the middle of a presidential dinner after learning that Martha Washington was going to give her to Washington’s granddaughter. Judge then secured a ticket for a sailing ship bound for Portsmouth, New Hampshire and hopped on board. After settling there, she eventually married and had three children.
She would later give a series of interviews to abolitionist newspapers alleging that the Washingtons administered brutal punishments to rebellious slaves, and tried to circumvent Pennsylvania’s 1780 gradual abolition law by moving slaves to and from the state every six months.
George Washington. for his part. wrote that he was shocked at Judge’s “ingratitude,” saying that she had fled “without any provocation.” When he tried to implore her to come back, he rebuked Judge’s request that she be freed when Martha Washington died, dismissing it as “totally inadmissible” and saying that giving into Judge’s demands would “reward unfaithfulness” and lead the “far more deserving of favor” to mutiny.
Now, at the new exhibition (which opened in October), we’ll finally get to hear more of Judge’s side of the story, as it were. The exhibition will furthermore profile 18 other former slaves.
The exhibition will continue to run through September 2018, after growing to six times the size organizers initially thought.
“We had so much material,” Susan P. Schoelwer, the curator at Mount Vernon, told The New York Times “and it’s such an important story.”
Next, read all about the dark side of George Washington.